After traveling back and forth over the course of eight years to Durban, South Africa, filmmaker Billy Raftery needed an ending for Angels in Exile, his documentary about two proud yet impoverished children who live on the city’s streets.
While he had plenty of material, he sensed that the proper conclusion hadn’t come. Money for the project was always tight, but Raftery knew he had to be patient. He trusted that he would somehow find a way to leave audiences with the same feeling of hope that he experienced, an optimism bestowed upon him by adults he had met who had survived the streets and felt inclined to give back.
“I was inspired by these former street kids, by the persistence they exude, the wherewithal they have and the unwavering hand that they lend to these kids that are still on the street,” Raftery tells TakePart. “I knew the kids would come around, just as the former street kids who run our program have done, if I hung in there and waited it out.”
Indeed, Raftery’s faith was rewarded with a fitting end to Angels in Exile, which recently premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Still, his work is hardly done. The filmmaker’s process of making the film expanded to include far more than simply hitting RECORD on his camera. The project eventually leading Raftery to start Children Rise, an American-based nonprofit foundation to raise global consciousness about the issue of child homelessness and to support organizations such as the local outreach program Umthombo. Umthombo employs many of the kids who grew up homeless on Durban’s rough-and-tumble Point Road as social workers to lead the today’s children to a better life.
Back in 2002, Raftery had come to South Africa looking for waves, not to make them. On his Christmas break from Columbia University, where he was a senior, the young man had visited the coastal town of Durban to go surfing. There were tubes to shred, but activity along the shore really grabbed Raftery’s attention.
“I had only seen something like this on the UNICEF commercial,” says Raftery. “I didn't know poverty like I just saw right then…When I started encountering the homeless kids, huffing glue and asking me for money, I was struck by sheer curiosity, and it was through that trip that I knew that I had a goal, a mission at hand.”
“You can’t always be there to help. You can only do so much and then it’s up to that person at the end of the day. You empower them by letting them make their own decisions.”
Soon after, Raftery finished school and returned to Durban. He employed what he had learned from studying film to document the lives of Zulieka and Ariel, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy, who are in their early twenties by the end of Angels in Exile.
Like most of the hundreds of kids living on the streets, the two had grown distrustful of adults, leaving families where they were abused and in poverty. Raftery won their trust as well as that of a fellow surfer named Tom Hewitt, who happened to run Umthombo. Together, the two have shown through the story of Zulieka and Ariel that even in an area rife with crime, these children are not a lost cause. They have also taken steps behind the scenes to suggest a sustainable way forward.
“You can’t always be there to help,” says Raftery. “You can only do so much, and then it’s up to that person at the end of the day. You empower them by letting them make their own decisions.”
Raftery knows the importance of decisions firsthand from the impetuous choice he made nearly a decade ago.
The Charlize Theron-narrated doc has only begun its run on the festival circuit. The filmmaker hopes that each subsequent screening will raise greater awareness for Umthombo and Children Rise and, by extension, other organizations around the world doing such work with homeless youth.
No matter what transpires, the experience has changed Raftery.
“It’s allowed me to really fight to get something done and fight to get these kids a voice,” says Raftery. “That’s what we hope our film does, is provide the voice for this very overlooked population.”
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